The Hidden Agenda of Powerless Speech: A Tip for Better Persuasion


Get Shift Done: Management

Imagine yourself rediscovering your favorite book for the first time. Remember that feeling when you couldn’t put it down no matter how late in the night it was? Remember folding the book in half and cracking the spine as you turned from page to page wondering what would happen next. You loved that book. You felt that every word was strategically placed for your eyes and your eyes only.

I rekindled that feeling as I leafed through a book that has been collecting dust for three years.

Last night I decided to reopen some of my favorite textbooks from grad school and I came across my all-time favorite: The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st century. As I flipped through the book, I stopped at a dog ear that I distinctly remember folding three years ago. I remember purposefully marking that page as a deliberate beacon of remembrance to remind my future self that one day I’ll appreciate refreshing myself on this topic.

The section read: Powerless versus Powerful Speech

So, if you would humor this old nerd (me) for a few minutes, I’d like to share what powerless versus powerful speech is because I did find this refresher useful. I’m sure some of you will find it useful as well.

Powerless versus Powerful Speech

Has this ever happened to you? You’re sitting in a business meeting and someone raises their hand and says, “I know this is a dumb question but…” As they continue to ask their question, you feel embarrassed for them and frustrated that someone is about to waste your time with a dumb question. During this quick exchange, something fascinating just happened. Powerless speech just overhauled the room. While there surely is no such thing as a dumb question, saying “dumb question” before asking a question is a foolish phrase as it undermines their credibility by proposing to everyone that their otherwise intelligent and perfectly satisfactory questions is low-grade and second-rate.

This is a perfect example of powerless speech, a linguistic trait that I hear muttered almost every day in meetings, phone calls, and one-on-one meetings with co-workers. It happens all the time, I’m even guilty of it every now and again. However, minimizing its frequency will drastically improve your persuasiveness. Here’s why:

Powerless speech suggests to listeners that you are uncertain, insufficient, and not entirely confident with yourself.

Examples of powerless speech are:

  • Hesitations: “Uh” and “Well, you know” shows a lack of certainty and confidence.
  • Hedges: “kinda,” “sort of,” and “I guess” are phrases that reduce the definitiveness of a persuaders assertion.
  • Tag Questions: When a communicator follows a statement with a question. An example of this is, “That email is being sent at 1:00 pm sharp. Isn’t it?”
  • Disclaimers: “I’m no expert but…” and “This may be crazy to say but…” are all disclaimers. They’re introductory sayings that imply that the listener should give the communicator leeway, reducing the communicator’s credibility.

The Dynamics of Persuasion provides a great example of this. Monica Lewinsky, the woman who became the focal point of the impeachment scandal of 1998 was first introduced to the American public as immature and helpless. The original opinion of Monica was naive, as she littered the airwaves with powerless speech. However, when she addressed everyone in the senate impeachment trial of Clinton in 1999 everything changed. “Her voice and vocabulary displayed to everyone that she was all grown up. Even her voice seemed different now, more modulated, less high-pitched, and breathy,” a reporter said.

Monica’s use of powerful speech enhanced her credibility, perhaps leading the audience to place more trust in her story.

Let it be known, that while powerful speech is thought to be more persuasive, there are some situations where that doesn’t hold weight. If you want to generate goodwill as opposed to projecting expertise, certain types of unassertive speech outperform the assertive types. Unassertive speech is a way for a powerful figure to appear down-to-earth and actually human. So, occasionally throwing in tag questions will promote your goodwill and likability. Consider this strategy next time you’re trying to persuade a group of people.

Thank you for letting me share this with you. I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions if you’ve noticed similar situations in your life. Please comment below. Thanks!

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